Senior Director for International Migration Policy, Kevin Appleby, reports from a fact-finding mission in the Middle East to ascertain the situation of Syrian, Iraqi, and other refugee groups in the region. From February 24 to March 6, 2017, Mr. Appleby will travel to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Greece.
Beirut, Lebanon—CMS’s Kevin Appleby had a chance to sit down on February 25, 2017 with Bishop Antoine Audo, Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Syria, and the head of Caritas, Syria, to ask him about his views on the Syrian conflict and the plight of the Syrian refugees and internally displaced. Bishop Audo offered his observations on the situation of Syrian Christians, who are caught in the crossfire of the conflict, an issue which has been a focal point in the refugee debate in the United States. The Trump Administration has indicated its intent to prioritize the resettlement of persecuted Christians over other faiths.
Aleppo, Syria, is a city of about 2.3 inhabitants (now 1.5 million due to the war) located in northern Syria, about 120 km from the Mediterranean and 45 km from the Syrian-Turkish border. It is the center point of the conflict, as government forces under Syrian President Bashar Assad have fought with rebel groups to retake the city from them. The city has also garnered headlines because of reports that the Russians have bombed parts of it on behalf of the Syrian regime, killing civilians. At least half of the city has been destroyed in the fighting.
There are about 160,000 Christians who lived in Aleppo before the conflict. However, only 30,000 live there now, including Bishop Audo. He is pastor to more than 15,000 Chaldean Catholics in the city, 7,000 of whom have fled the city and 200 of whom have died.
“Seven million Syrians are displaced within Syria, with 5 million Syrian refugees in countries surrounding Syria – Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan,” he said. “Two million Syrian children are unable to attend school,” he added, “and we are losing the young people, who are fleeing conscription into the army and heading to Europe and beyond.”
Should Christians, including Chaldean Catholics, be resettled to the West to escape the war and targeted persecution? “Traditionally, Christians have not been persecuted in Syria, until the war,” he stated. “Now, armed (rebel) groups target them because they are perceived as loyal to the government.”
ISIS goes after Christians to “show that Islam is more powerful” and to “instill fear in the West.” However, resettling Christians over Muslims is not the best way to protect them. “If you favor Christians, they will say that Christianity is against us,” he said.
Bishop Audo added that the real conflict is between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority, which includes the Alawites, of which Assad and his family are members. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are providing weapons to the opposition and, according to some sources, to ISIS to fight the Shia and their proxy, Iran. The weapons provided by the two countries are purchased from nations in the West.
What of the rhetoric coming out of the US Administration against Muslims? “By demonizing them, you create hate in the Muslim world,” Bishop Audo stated. He cited the American invasion of Iraq as inciting hate, and “now there are only 300,000 Christians in Iraq, as opposed to 1.2 million before the invasion.”
“We are doing all that we can to stay,” Bishop Audo proclaimed, adding that Muslims would want them to go. “This is our land, we are close to Antioch (Turkey) and Damascus, where St. Paul was converted.”
“But we cannot force them (Christians) to stay,” he sighed. Many of his people have fled to the “Valley of the Christians,” near the Mediterranean in northwest Syria. “If the war was ended, I believe many would come back,” he opined.
How can the war be ended? “Speaking as a Christian, we must work for peace,” Bishop Audo said. “There is no future in supporting war or conflict between Sunni and Shia. We must work for reconciliation.”
Bishop Audo needed to begin his trip back to Aleppo from Beirut. “We are losing everything, faith and hope,” he concluded. “We are waiting on the mercy of God.”